How Mediation Protects Children (and Parents) from Divorce Trauma

Psychologist Dr. Robert E. Emery of University of Virginia wanted to know if mediation really protects families (kids and parents) from divorce trauma and his experiment showed that it does.  The study goes a long way towards showing that divorce as we know it causes avoidable pain and emotional injury to both parents and kids, and that mediation can minimize both pain and emotional injury.

Divorce mediation had a powerful peacemaking effect and served as an antidote to divorce poison.  The peacemaking effect was felt not only in resolving the issue at hand.  Even in the rare case when mediation did not resolve all of the issues during the session, the parents were more likely to settle out before the hearing then parents who did not go through mediation.  In the long term, mediation also had a powerful protective effect against parental alienation (parent/child), and it improved the relationship between the divorcing parents (parent/parent).

In contrast, without divorce mediation, as conflict was allowed to simmer and go from bad to worse, parents were transformed.  They became hardened, more loyal to conflict, and less aware of how painful it is for children to see them fight.  Resolving the custody dispute without mediation usually lead to a lifetime of hostility and alienation.

To find out the effect of mediation, Dr. Emery did a controlled experiment.  He took 71 angry families that were heading for a custody hearing before a judge and randomly divided them into two groups.  Parents in the experimental group (35 families) went on to work with a mediator.   Parents in the control group (36 families) worked with their individual lawyers, the way divorce is usually done.  Mediation was short-term (5 hr average) and problem-focused but sensitive to emotions, especially grief.  The results were so strong and clear, it was astonishing.

Immediate Effects

Two conclusions can be drawn about the immediate effects of mediation.  First, mediation worked 80% of the time (blue) to help parents hate each other less, so they could compromise and resolve all their differences in mediation.  That’s the big blue rectangle in the bar chart.

Second, even when mediation did not result in a complete resolution during the mediation session, it still made it easier to resolve all issues between the mediation session and the hearing.  When a complete resolution was not achieved during the session (red and purple in the right column), mediation still cooled tempers enough to improve the chances of settling out of court.  Without mediation, only 25% of the couples settled out of court (purple rectangle at the top of the left vertical bar), but 75% had die-hard hostilities and fought to the bitter end (red rectangle at the bottom of the left vertical bar).  But of those couples that went through mediation and did not settle everything completely (purple and red at the bottom of the right vertical bar), 50% settled out of court.

Another way to put this is that “bitter end” couples were reduced from 75% without mediation (red rectangle at the bottom of the left vertical bar) to 10% after mediation (red rectangle at the bottom of the right vertical bar).  That’s an amazing improvement.

Emery, Case settlement

Long-Term Effects

But what’s even more striking is that mediation resolved conflict when it was done but also its benefits could be felt some 12 years later.  And it benefited families in remarkable ways.

Mediation strengthened the child’s relationship with the nonresident parent (usually father).  Twelve years later, in families that benefited from mediation, the nonresident parent saw the child much more often.  In the mediation group, 28% of nonresident parents saw kids weekly or more often compared to 9% of the nonresident parents in the no-mediation group.  For comparison, only 11% of nonresident parents in the nation see kids this much.

So it seems that the court fight for a bigger parenting share has the opposite effect.  It poisons the well, and the contact for which the nonresident parent fought, just does not happen.  See three right-most vertical bars (blue, red, and orange).

Emery, 12 y contact

The mediation impact was even stronger for telephone contact.  Twelve years later, 52% of nonresident parents from the mediation group talked to kids weekly or better.  Compare this to the no-mediation group where only 14% of nonresident parents had this kind of contact and the national sample where only 18% had this kind contact.  See three right-most vertical bars (blue, red, and orange).

Emery, 12 y telephon contact

The comparison to national averages tells a lot.  Families that fought in court were only a little bit more distant than national average.  But nonresident parents who went through mediation had a much, much closer relationship with the kids than then typical.  So the study shows that mediation in year 1 still keeps working in year 12 to protect the family from parental alienation between the child and the nonresident parent that routinely happens in divorce.  This is powerful.  This is beautiful.  For many families, this is life-changing impact.

The nonresident parent is not the only one who benefits from mediation.  The study also shows residential parents who mediated where more satisfied with the nonresidential parent and gave nonresidential parents better “grades” in every area including

  • discipline,
  • grooming,
  • religious and moral training,
  • running errands,
  • celebrating holidays,
  • taking part in significant events, school and church activities,
  • recreation,
  • vacations, and
  • discussing problems with the residential parent

This is quite an accomplishment.  The results showed that mediation sets the tone for a lifetime of good will and cooperation between parents–a good fertile soil to grow emotionally healthy kids.

Residential parents (usually moms) often say, “I’d like my child to have a strong relationship with his father, but I just wish that my ex would stop being such a jerk.”  The study showed that going to court is noxious to the relationship with the nonresident parent (usually dad) and sows the toxic seeds of alienation.

Emery, 12 y mom rating dad

In summary, short-term problem-focused child custody mediation, if it is sensitive to emotions, especially grief, has the immediate effect of resolving the conflict (80%-90%) and a lifelong effects improving the relationship between divorced parents and being the antidote against parental alienation.

Emery, R.E., Laumann-Billings, L., Waldron, M., Sbarra, D.A., and Dillon, P. (2001). Child custody mediation and litigation: Custody, contact, and co-parenting 12 years after initial dispute resolution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 323-332.

The Sane Divorce